First Contact

Antarctica. In 2006.

This gorgeous leopard seal was probably making his/her first ever contact with humans when I snapped her/him. Doesn’t he/she look as surprised as all get-out? Like she/he is thinking: ‘Am I dreaming?’ Or perhaps ‘Could this be a nightmare?’

There would, I’d hazard a guess, be no Covid-19 in Antarctica. Nevertheless, we can’t go there. The truth is there are not too many places we can go. Not right now. We can only entertain delicious fantasies by drooling over photos like this. You would certainly have some photos too, though not necessarily of Antarctica, over which to drool.

So let me indulge in fond reminiscence.

We travelled south from Hobart on a Russian vessel described as ‘ice-strengthened’, i.e. able to push through thin pancake ice, but not equipped to break the heavy stuff. She (boats are feminine naturally) was named Marina Tsvetaeva, after the revered Russian poet. It was February, the end of summer in the southern hemisphere. There were about sixty people plus crew on the boat. Quite intimate. From Hobart, it was four days rough sailing before we reached the coast of the Antarctic continent. Near Shackleton’s hut. Near the Ross Ice Shelf.  South of the Antarctic Circle.

What can I say about Antarctica that hasn’t already been said? That I found it quite unlike any other place I had ever been should hardly surprise you. The colours needed to be seen to be believed. Unreal shades of pink, orange, and red (sun very low in the sky), of blue (icebergs), and of course white in thirty different shades.   A feeling of isolation not realisable anywhere else in the world. Glaciers, one of my very favourite natural phenomena, slithering and grinding at glacial speed, dominating the foreground and reaching to distant horizons.

So what were the circumstances in play when (may I dare to presume?) the leopard seal made first contact with this small contingent of humans of which I was part, or indeed with humanity at large? When he/she first became aware such things as humans even existed?  It was about three in the morning Eastern Australian Time. But the time didn’t really have much meaning in this place where the sun barely ever sets in summer and barely ever rises in winter. So it was bright daylight. About six or seven of us were exploring the northern reaches of the Ross Ice Shelf in a Zodiac, which is an inflatable rubber dinghy.

The temperature was about minus three degrees Celcius. We had been taking in the sights now for almost two straight hours so, even though we were rugged up for the occasion in our very warmest gear, the penetrating cold was beginning to bite. We had resorted to tapping our feet on the floor of the Zodiac to keep warm. We were hanging out for breakfast back at the Marina Tsvetaeva, especially for the cup of hot chocolate that would accompany it.

Then we rounded the corner of an ice wall, and came across that wondrous sight in the photo. Our eyeball to eyeball moment. Of an astonished leopard seal, seeing humans for the first time. Relaxing after a hearty breakfast of penguin sashimi. Toto, this is not Kansas anymore.

Let’s review the animal kingdom apropos the response of its membership to humans.  I warrant every kangaroo in Australia knows a human when he/she sees one. Lions in the Kruger National Park would, I suspect, be very blase about if not totally bored by people. Cows in India roam freely among the human population as if they were their brothers/sisters.

But this Antarctic animal was, I suspect, in a different category entirely.

There was no terror in the creature’s face. No fear of the unknown. Just a kind of astonishment. This was his/her territory, and she/he was sovereign here. His/her surroundings were familiar and safe. We, the strange ones, were the strangers here, the fish out of water, so how could we possibly be any sort of threat?

We gawked, took photos, and bedded down memories. Then, in our Zodiac, we moved on. The moment of magic had come and gone. The leopard seal went back to letting regular leopard seal thoughts flood its leopard seal brain. We went back to letting thoughts of a warm breakfast flood ours.

First contact was over.